Larry Brown’s sudden departure from SMU was likely about more than his contract, says Seth Davis—it was Larry Brown being Larry Brown.
NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. — It was late Thursday evening, and I was leaving the Riverview Park Activities Center after a long day attending Nike’s EYBL Peach Jam, one of the premier events of the summer recruiting circuit. As I exited the building, I ran into Tim Jankovich, SMU’s associate head coach. He was standing with newly hired Oklahoma State head coach Brad Underwood. As the three of us bantered, I asked Jankovich where his boss, Larry Brown, was this week. “Oh, he’s at an event in Texas,” Jankovich replied. Turning to Underwood, Jankovich quipped, “No need to go there. There aren’t any good players for you in Texas.”
Jankovich later confirmed to me that at that moment, he had absolutely no inkling that less than 24 hours later, his boss would step aside and Jankovich would become SMU’s head coach. But that’s what happens when you agree to enter the leather-bound, hardwood-paneled, bounce-every-which-way-possible world of Lawrence Harvey Brown. You can never get comfortable and must always expect the unexpected. Stability seekers need not apply.
Friday’s bizarre turn of events was just the latest episode in a very long series of impressive, disappointing, amazing, scandalous, weird tales of this unemployed (again) 75-year-old basketball troubadour. Is Brown really through with coaching? Hard to say. He apparently feels like he has a few years left in him. You know his motto: If at first you don’t succeed, try try try try try try try try try try try try try again.
SMU certainly should not be surprised by any of this. Not the winning (three straight 25-win-plus seasons and the school’s first NCAA tournament appearance in 22 years). Not the NCAA scandal (a nine-game suspension and postseason ban last season, the third time a Brown-led program has suffered that fate). And certainly not the messy exit, reportedly over Brown’s demand for a five-year contract extension. What’s the definition of chutzpah? A 75-year-old coach with tens of millions of dollars in the bank insisting for a five-year deal. Even Betty White doesn’t have that kind of job security.
It’s all so unfortunate. Brown has unquestionably been one of the greatest teachers the game has ever known. He has had 13 jobs and won just about everywhere he has gone. He is the only man who has won an NCAA and NBA championship. In the end, alas, he will be remembered more for his odd and unscrupulous behavior. Brown was extremely fortunate to have a job after SMU was pummeled by the NCAA’s hammer last September. I don’t know of an instance in which a program endured such steep penalties without the coach losing his job. From a business perspective, it’s hard to argue the school was wrong. SMU has long been one of the nation’s most moribund programs. Brown gave it instant credibility, attracted a much higher level of talent, and then he coached up his guys like he always does.
Why did he take the job in the first place? Because he loved being in the gym. Even more than that—he needed to be in the gym. SMU gave him a platform, some pretty good players, a decent league, and a chance to keep working at an age when most people are lucky to be alive and healthy. Brown never enjoyed the recruiting part of things (few coaches do), but when he went to events in the summer, he took joy in sitting with other coaches, picking their brains, and drawing up plays and formations on game programs when they should have been evaluating players.
Forget about a contract extension. I don’t even know why he needed a salary. This is a guy who got paid nearly $20 million when the Knicks fired him in 2006. That alone should have left him feeling like he didn’t need no stinkin’ contracts. Nor was there much concern about how Brown’s status would affect things on the recruiting trail. When he took the job at SMU in 2012, a year after he was unceremoniously fired by Michael Jordan as coach of the Charlotte Bobcats, the school insisted that he appoint a designated head-coach-in-waiting. Brown agreed and hired Jankovich, a former Kansas assistant who at the time was the head coach at Illinois State. So none of the reasons why a head coach typically needs a long-term contract apply here.
That’s why I don’t believe this was about a contract. This was about Larry Brown being Larry Brown. He started off doing the job with great energy and his usual laser-like focus, but it was only a matter of time before those eyes started to wander. He has had a tough couple of years that damaged his reputation and sapped his strength. Brown told me often during the NCAA investigation that he barely slept. That’s a lot for any man to deal with, much less someone well into his seventies who was holding a job that comes with long hours, heavy pressure, and lots of travel. No wonder he was tired.
So he bowed out and used the contract as an excuse. Is SMU basketball better off than it was before Brown got there four years ago? No question. Still, the school deserved better. It gave Brown a chance when no one else wanted to. It stuck by him when most places would have (and probably should have) fired him. But here we are, in July, and once again Brown has moved on and left some damage and hurt feelings in his wake.
Is he really through with coaching? Hard to say. I could certainly envision him taking another college job. After all, Rollie Massimino is 81 years old, and he’s still patrolling the sidelines at Keiser University, a Division II school in West Palm Beach, Fla. Maybe Brown will coach in a high school somewhere. As long as it has a gym, he’ll be happy. Until he’s not.
If you want to go broke, bet on what Larry Brown is going to do next. The only thing we know for sure is that this particular chapter is over. Like all the others, it ended with a twist, and a rather unpleasant one at that.